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Review: PG Wodehouse's good humour led to wartime trouble

The sunny optimism possessed by one of the masters of light-hearted literature would turn out to be his undoing when war broke out in 1939, writes Steve Donoghue.

British-born novelist P G Wodehouse working at his home in Remsenberg, Long Island, New York.
British-born novelist P G Wodehouse working at his home in Remsenberg, Long Island, New York.

PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters

Edited by Sophie Ratcliffe

WW Norton

The stark - and now outdated - phenomenon of a letter in the morning mail, in the world of PG Wodehouse's fiction, "is an intrusive presence - a symbol of reality permeating the all-too-secure haven of one's bachelor flat, gentleman's club or country seat", writes Sophie Ratcliffe in her sparkling introduction to the new collection PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters (which she's produced with the full cooperation of the Wodehouse estate). "Whether it hails from an aunt, fiancée or amorous peer of the realm, the envelope by the toast rack is a threatening sight - a crumb in the butter of the Wodehousean Eden."

That "Eden" remark is an allusion - best got out of the way early, there as here - to the almost banally famous encomium on Wodehouse delivered by Evelyn Waugh in 1961, that "For Mr Wodehouse, there has been no Fall of Man … his characters have never tasted the forbidden fruit. Mr Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in".

The extraordinary range of people who delighted in that world - figures from Ludwig Wittgenstein to TS Eliot to George Orwell to US president Franklin Roosevelt to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to romance author Barbara Cartland and celebrated contrarian Christopher Hitchens - attests to its perennial appeal.

In a writing career that stretched for almost 75 years and included almost 100 books, scores of short stories and reviews and the lyrics to hit stage musicals, Wodehouse found - created - his own lingua franca of light-hearted victimless farce.

During some of the darkest years of a very dark century, he spun sunlit stories of Blandings Castle and its pig-obsessed inhabitants, of the raucous raconteur Mr Mulliner, of epicene and thoroughly pointless Psmith, and of hapless, idle Bertie Wooster and his all-knowing valet Jeeves. Sophie Ratcliffe makes the perceptive point that these stories were somewhat slow to be analysed because they were so long being simply enjoyed, but even the most casual perusal shows the steely craft at work beneath all the giggles.

That craft matured slowly, although the calling was there almost from the beginning. Wodehouse was born in 1881 in Surrey, England, into a family of the solid Victorian upper middle class, and after being educated at Dulwich College and briefly (and miserably) warming a stool in a banking office, he got his start in journalism in 1902, writing reviews and humorous squibs for the London penny press.

The muscular entrepreneurship of the Edwardian era prodded him, and he seized every opportunity that came his way. By 1909, the literary world of New York City had claimed him - he was hawking pieces for the booming American "pulp" market, such venues as People's and Munsey's. He shuttled back and forth between the US and England, met and married Ethel Wayman (the simple devotion they felt for each other is the most quietly stunning thread running through PG Wodehouse: A Life in Letters), and eventually ended up living and writing on the coast of France in the early 1930s.

Despite rumblings of German aggression from across the border, Wodehouse's letters from this period are doggedly cheerful. Writing to his old school friend William Townend in 1932 from Auribeau, Wodehouse laments that his current surroundings aren't providing him with any "stuff for stories" and reflects on the international flavour of his hired help. "We have a German butler," he writes, "an Alsatian footman, a Serbian cook, a French chauffeur, an Italian maid, and an English odd-job man. Good material for the next war. But they all seem to get on well together."

He chats with his adopted daughter Leonora about books in 1934, requesting Robert Graves' two Claudius novels and calling James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr Chips a "jolly good book". He assures correspondents that war is unthinkable.

Ratcliffe remarks often on a prominent feature of these letters: their author's stubborn, smiling optimism. As much as anything, that optimism was his undoing: when war between France and Germany was declared in 1939, he stayed put, and when France was conquered, Wodehouse and his wife fell under immediate suspicion as "enemy aliens". In July 1940, Wodehouse and a number of other Englishmen were interned at Le Touquet - he had only 10 minutes to pack, his wife sending him off with "a copy of Shakespeare, a pair of pyjamas, and a mutton chop".

At Le Touquet, and then later in freezing cold Upper Silesia, Wodehouse strove to maintain a cheerful outlook. "From Dulwich days onwards, the notion of mentioning hardship was, for him, the ultimate in 'bad form'," Ratcliffe tells us. "In times of crisis, cheerfulness was seen as a vital, even patriotic duty." The juxtaposition of cheerfulness and patriotism created a cross-haired trap into which Wodehouse fell - or, depending on how you look at things, into which he hurried with his eyes wide open. He wrote comical bits and sketches for the prisoners' newspaper, and he penned humorous accounts of camp life - not only, he later said, to keep a brave face on things but also to assure his international readership (which was by this point quite numerous and affectionate - his austere Boston agent, Paul Revere Reynolds, was horrified to learn that one of his best authors was imprisoned in a "concentration camp") that he was alive and well. After his 60th birthday had ended his internment and he'd returned to Nazi-occupied France, he made a series of broadcasts over German airwaves painting a lighthearted, almost affectionate portrait of life in a Nazi camp. For the rest of his life, Wodehouse claimed he'd acted in good faith but foolishly underestimated the negative effect his merry broadcasts would have on British morale, or the propaganda value they'd have for the Nazis intent on keeping the United States out of the war.

The searching question of that claim is the dark controversy at the heart of any book about PG Wodehouse: did he knowingly collaborate with the Nazis in the hopes of protecting himself, or was he blindsided by the furore his actions aroused in England and in the US, where the text of his comments caused extremely negative reactions in some quarters, prompting Wesley Stout, the editor of TheSaturday Evening Post, to fire off a cable warning.

In 1941, writing from the Adlon Hotel in Berlin, Wodehouse responded: "I can't understand what there was in it that could have offended people. I read it as a paper in the camp to an audience of several hundred, all rabid patriots, and had them rolling in the aisles. And they not only laughed, but applauded and cheered. So what can have been wrong with it?" Even in a volume as warmly sympathetic as Ratcliffe's, such naïveté is nearly impossible to believe.

Touchy and liberated France - to say nothing of an England busy trying proven Nazi agents like "Lord Haw-Haw" - seemed uninviting after such an incident. The Wodehouses moved to New York in the 1950s, and PG Wodehouse never lived in England again. He became a US citizen in 1955.

When the intermittent desperation of the apprentice years and the tense drama of the war years are over, Wodehouse's life and Ratcliffe's book settle into a far more prosaic, regular rhythm of friends, fame and the couple's daily attentions to each other and their beloved dogs (one or two cats are mentioned as well, but then, even repentant authors aren't perfect).

This prosperous, happy Wodehouse is the best incarnation of the author in these pages: he happily dishes out gossip, catches up on the lives of his many acquaintances (the lack of any letters but his own is the volume's only serious shortcoming), and carries on an enormous correspondence.

He hears from a young reader in Iowa whose brother prefers Faulkner to Wodehouse, and he dashes off a quick note: "Your brother's taste in literature is excellent. Hope my next book will cure him. Best wishes, PG Wodehouse." Friends get notes signed "Plum".

The curious scaffolding of the creative process - and the odd creative make-up of this particular author - are laid bare in absorbing detail in this latter half. To one correspondent Wodehouse can narrate the plot of what will become his great novel The Mating Season in such a way as to make it sound like the most tedious business in the world (trying to describe the plot of a Wodehouse novel is as useless an endeavour as trying to describe the action sequence of a dream). To another he asks: "How do you feel about the literary classics?" and then confesses: "I have come to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with me, because I can't read them. I tried Jane Austen and was bored stiff, and last night I had a go at Balzac's Pere Goriot and had to give it up. I can't take the least interest in the characters." In a conclusion bound to cheer murder mystery fans, he adds, "Give me Patricia Wentworth!"

The years go by, and increasingly the letters allude to age and weakness. Wodehouse famously works to the end, but late in his life, when writing about reworking every sentence 10 times until it's perfect, he slips into a melancholy strain and virtually supplies his own epitaph: "When in due course Charon ferries me across the Styx and everyone is telling everyone else what a rotten writer I am, I hope at least one voice will be heard piping up: 'But he did take trouble'."

Of course, when Charon finally did come for him in 1975, nobody mentioned rotten writing. Tributes flowed from every corner of the literary world, and new editions of the evergreen Wodehouse canon continue to appear and are likely to keep doing so as long as people read - as long as they need a little relief from the "irksome captivity" Waugh mentioned. Added to that canon now is Sophie Ratcliffe's indispensable volume.

Steve Donoghue is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.